Next Paisano Fellow shares tall tales, not-so-tall tales and “Birdisms”

SarahBirdSarah Bird’s favorite description of herself as an author came from a high school student who was forced to attend a literary reading by her English teacher. She says,  “Sarah Bird was tall and thin and wore these cute reading glasses on the tip of her nose. If I recall correctly, she forgot her reading glasses and had to borrow somebody’s in the audience. Regardless of the reading glasses situation, she was very genuine and you could just tell on her face she did not write novels for money, she wrote novels because she loved writing. Her short excerpts to me seemed like a complete novel of their own. I mean she specifically picked pieces she loved, but the details just filled up like a complete novel. I really enjoyed this reading, and I definitely got some laughs out of it.”

Laughs and enjoyment seem to be two key aspects of writing novels for Sarah Bird and they were plentiful on Thursday night (10/8/09) as Bird was welcomed as the next Dobie Paisano Fellow during an event in her honor on The University of Texas at Austin campus.  Bird will hold the Ralph A. Johnston fellowship for established writers during her time on the Paisano ranch.

Bird enchanted the audience with witty tales of her younger self (who would be insanely jealous of her new fellowship), excerpts from her writing (including channeling her “Zen Mama” to deal with a teenage child) and stories from the front lines of Houston high society.

A columnist for Texas Monthly and the author of seven novels, Bird’s writing career has won her many awards and accolades.  These include the Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize, Amazon’s Fiction and Literature Editors and the American Library Association’s Booklist Editors Best Book of the Year and the Texas Institute of Letters’s Award for Best Work of Fiction (twice) among others.

Becoming an author was not Bird’s dream as a little girl.  As the child of a military family, much of her youth was spent oversees with little exposure to writers.  She says,

“The idea of being a writer never crossed my mind until I discovered a form so, hmmm, let’s say, ‘approachable,’ that it occurred to me that human beings might be producing it rather than the gods who wrote the books I loved.  This form was the photo-romance.  I discovered the photo-romance when I was an au pair in France.  Ostensibly, I was in France learning French.  Actually, I was fleeing a very bad love affair.  In any case, I was a 20-year-old nitwit and the only person whose French was worse than mine was the three-month-old bebe I was taking care.  So I started buying photo-romances as a shy person’s way of learning the colloquial language.

When I returned home, I sought out a comparable market in the United States and discovered true confession magazines.. ..These publications allowed me to learn how to tell a story in a voice that was not my own, to sink deeply into a character and her world, but, most importantly, since these ‘confessions’ were all anonymous, they allowed me to simply learn how to fill up pages with no thought whatsoever that they would ever be associated with me.”

As she has clearly learned how to do more than “fill up pages,” Bird still expressed “utter delight and astonishment” upon learning that she was chosen for the fellowship.  The last time she applied for a fellowship more than 25 years ago, (the Paisano fellowship, as a matter of fact) she was turned down.  She says it took this long to get up the nerve to apply again.  That might also have to do with the fact that her friend Terry Galloway, who did win the fellowship that year, tried to make her feel better by extolling the more rustic virtues of the ranch – including rattlesnakes and scorpions.

Bird, who will live on the ranch with her “Texas boy” husband, is undaunted by the critters and is looking forward to the proximity to nature as she works on a rewrite of her next novel for her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.

Web Exhibition Explores Work of Depression-Era Writer Sanora Babb

sanora-babbThe Harry Ransom Center has introduced the Web exhibition “Sanora Babb: Stories From the American High Plains,” which highlights the work of American novelist Sanora Babb (1907-2005). Babb drew on the natural beauty of the American High Plains and the difficult conditions of her childhood there to give voice to a people who left little written record of their own lives and who have received scant representation in history.

The exhibition highlights Babb’s accomplishments as a fiction writer and illustrates with historical photographs the plight of Depression-era Americans. Many of the photographs were taken by Babb’s sister, Dorothy.

Sanora Babb’s first novel, “Whose Names Are Unknown,” traces the lives of High Plains families uprooted from their dry land farms and forced to seek work as seasonal harvesters. Random House accepted Babb’s novel for publication in 1939, then broke the contract when John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” appeared, contending that buyers would not welcome two novels treating the same subject. “Whose Names Are Unknown” was eventually published by University of Oklahoma Press in 2004 to much acclaim, including a Los Angeles Times review claiming that Babb’s Dust Bowl novel rivaled Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Get Your Sugar and Shakespeare Fix

shakespeare_cake_1 shakespearesonnetpageshelflife

In a special Poetry on the Plaza event in honor of National Poetry Month, the Harry Ransom Center presents a marathon reading of “Shake-speares Sonnets” (1609) at noon on Wednesday, April 22. “Shakes-peares Sonnets” turns 400 this year, and to celebrate, Shakespeare scholars, poets, and others will read from “Shake-speares Sonnets” and “The Lovers Complaint.” Starting at noon, all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the poem “The Lovers Complaint” will be read on the Ransom Center plaza. Readers include Dean Young, the William S. Livingston Endowed Chair in Poetry; James Loehlin, director of the Shakespeare at Winedale program; Franchelle Dorn, the Virginia L. Murchison Regents Professor in Fine Arts; and Thomas Cable, the Jane Weinert Blumberg Chair in English. Cable will recite his series of sonnets from memory. Birthday cake will be served at this free event to honor William Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23. This program will be webcast live.

Persian poetry exhibition attracts international coverage

rubaiyat_identityThe Harry Ransom Center’s exhibition The Persian Sensation: The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the West has recently garnered coverage in multiple Arabic and Persian news outlets.

The exhibition has been mentioned in the Tehran Times, Payvand’s Iran News,, Persian Journal, Press TV and Aaram News.

The U.S. Department of State has also published information about the exhibition on its website in English, Persian and Arabic.

The Persian Sensation is on display at the Ransom Center through Aug. 2. The year 2009 marks the 150th anniversary of Edward FitzGerald’s landmark translation of the poetry of the medieval Persian astronomer Omar Khayyám. These gemlike verses about mortality, fate, and doubt became an unprecedented popular phenomenon in England and America but have since fallen into obscurity. Featuring 200 items from the Ransom Center’s extensive collections, the exhibition narrates The Rubáiyát’s history through such items as Persian manuscripts, miniature editions, and illustrated parodies.